Becoming Friends is a response to requests from newcomers for a way to learn more about Quakers and Quakerism. Some people were finding that welcoming as their local meeting may be, it was not easy to ask more searching questions, or to share with people on a deeper level, or even to know where to start reading all the books in the meeting house library.
I remember a newcomer to my meeting saying ‘I’ve been trying to read Fox’s Journal, but I’m finding it really difficult to understand’, to which my immediate reply was ‘I’ve never read it, despite being a Friend for nearly 30 years, perhaps it’s not the best place to start’. When I heard about the plans for ‘Becoming Friends’ I offered to help with the trials, and invited the Friend who’d struggled with Fox’s Journal to join me. We both enjoyed and were challenged by the activities suggested, but found the opportunity to share something of our spiritual journeys particularly valuable.
The ‘course’ (forget all your ideas about courses at school and college, this one has no assignments, examinations, deadlines, essays or being told what to do) consists of ten units, eight covering different topic areas, plus opening and closing units (which are recommended to look at first and last, so there is a bit of structure).
Each unit has a range of activities to try, grouped into three sections:
Distinctives: exploring the distinctive Quaker way in relation to that topic,
Discovering: more about Quaker people and community, structures, resources and events, Deepening: opportunities for personal reflection and journalling, prayer or spiritual practice and spiritual friendship conversations.
Apart from the opening and closing units, units can be looked at in any order (they are arranged alphabetically – a method traditionally used among Quakers for listing almost everything in an attempt to avoid discrimination) and at whatever length and depth the participant wishes, although taking at least one activity from each of the three sections is suggested, for balance and maximum benefit.
A great strength of the ‘course’, at its best, is the provision, if desired, of a local ‘companion’ to meet with to discuss progress, ask questions, plan how to proceed, arrange to talk to others and for general support and sharing. The role of the ‘companion’ is support and listening, not instruction or teaching. I have been privileged to serve as a companion to several newcomers and it has been a profound learning experience for me. I have also been with the online course since the launch in January 2009, and have been moved by the depth of the sharing in the online forums and by the welcoming, supportive atmosphere.
The ‘course’ is available online from Woodbrooke and in book form (from the Quaker bookshop). The book is very thick and possibly daunting which is why a fellow companion dubbed it ‘The Bumper Book of Quaker Fun’ likening it to the ‘Bumper Fun’ books of puzzles we used to have as children. Like that, one can dip in and out, skip from page to page, do all the dot-to-dots and leave the crosswords, or spend hours colouring one page with great attention to detail.